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Senior Airman Frances Gavalis tosses unserviceable uniform items into a burn pit at Balad Air Base, Iraq, on March 10, 2008.
Senior Airman Frances Gavalis tosses unserviceable uniform items into a burn pit at Balad Air Base, Iraq, on March 10, 2008. (Julianne Showalter/U.S. Air Force)

WASHINGTON — A federal district court on Jan. 21 will consider the scope of a lawsuit alleging soldiers’ exposure to burn pits in Iraq and Afghanistan led to serious respiratory illnesses and deaths and whether government contractor KBR, Inc. is responsible for the way the pits were operated.

In Iraq and Afghanistan, the military relied heavily on the large, open-air pits to burn trash and waste daily, exposing the personnel working the pits and others living nearby to toxic smoke.

In 2010, the Government Accountability Office found the Department of Defense was not following its own regulations for safe burn-pit operations, and that pits were regularly used to dispose of prohibited plastics, paints, batteries, aerosols, aluminum and other items that could produce harmful emissions when burned.

KBR, under the military’s logistical support contract, operated the pits.

For military families affected, there’s no question in their minds that the burn pits caused the illnesses they now face.

“My husband was deployed to Iraq in 2007. He came back sick,” said Rosie Torres, executive director of Burn Pits 360, a nonprofit group raising awareness of the long-term respiratory illnesses and cancers servicemembers have experienced since returning from deployment.

Since his illness, retired Army Capt. Le Roy Torres has been diagnosed with constrictive bronchiolitis and had to leave his job as a Texas state trooper. He’s had cysts in his spleen, regular headaches and is on oxygen. But what could still be unknown about the long-term effects of exposure to the pits is the worst part, Rosie Torres said.

“He’s stable but he’s not,” she said. “We don’t know enough about this lung disease to say what going to happen next.”

Torres and her husband are party to the lawsuit, she said.

On Jan. 21, a federal district court in Greenbelt, Md. will hear arguments to determine the scope of the case, which was originally filed in 2010 and potentially could include more than 53 former or current bases in Iraq, including al Taqqadum Air Base and Taji, where some of the 3,550 U.S. soldiers sent back to Iraq are deployed to train Iraqi security forces.

Col. Steve Warren, a Baghdad-based spokesman for Operation Inherent Resolve, did not know whether burn pits were still in use at Iraqi military training sites.

Nine locations in Afghanistan are also potentially within the lawsuit’s scope, as are another eight bases supporting Iraq and Afghanistan operations, such as Camp Arijian in Kuwait.

Since the original filing, dozens of similar lawsuits by servicemembers have been consolidated under this case, which is being presided over by Judge Robert W. Titus at the U.S. District Court for the District of Maryland, Greenbelt Division.

The lawsuit is just one of several fronts in which veterans groups and the DOD are attempting to weigh what effect burn-pit exposure has had on servicemembers.

In 2015, Congress added burn-pit exposure to a list of peer-reviewed medical issues to be studied by the Congressionally Directed Medical Research Program at Fort Detrick, Md. That study is not yet underway, said Gail Whitehead, a spokesman for the program. Research funding for the congressional program starts at two years, and typically produces a report within three years, Whitehead said. Burn-pit exposure was not included in the 2016 list of topics.

In addition, Veterans Affairs opened a burn-pit registry in 2014 for the estimated 2.3 million veterans who served in Operation Desert Storm in the 1990s or supported the more recent operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. The VA did so to record what ailments they were experiencing, where and when they served, and whether they were exposed to burn pits.

Torres said 53,255 veterans had registered as of Nov. 30, and that her group wants to make more veterans aware of the registry.

The VA has released two studies based on information collected from the registry. The data shows that personnel who worked at burn pits were more likely to report a chronic respiratory disease, and the department has said “veterans who were closer to burn pit smoke may be at greater risk.”

However, the VA said “at this time, research does not show evidence of long-term health problems from exposure to burn pits.”

The VA will be expected to report to Congress later this year on its findings from the registry based on language inserted by Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., into the 2016 Omnibus Appropriations bill. Twitter: @TaraCopp


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